My Infertility Was the Eating Disorder Wake-Up Call I Needed
Forming a healthy relationship with diet and exercise was the key to having the family I always wanted.
When my husband and I started talking about having kids, I was in my late 20s, exercised consistently, ate a super-clean diet, and was overall in great health. So I thought I'd have no problem getting pregnant. I was wrong.I went off birth control and we started trying, but it quickly became clear that I had problem. I wasn't menstruating, like ever. It's pretty impossible to conceive a baby when you don't have a period. But why I wasn't getting my monthly cycle was a mystery. I saw many specialists who all tried to figure out why my body wasn't cooperating. All my tests came back fine and they had no good answers for me. Eventually, I decided I'd either have to resign myself to never having children or to a grueling regimen of expensive and painful fertility treatments. It was incredibly frustrating. All I could think was, "I'm so fit, so why is my body not working like it should?" I thought I was doing everything I could to be healthy. It just didn't occur to me that my healthy habits were the reason for my problems. I knew I wanted kids, so I made an appointment with Robert Gustofson, M.D., a fertility doctor at the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, to start the invasive process of fertility testing and treatments. I steeled myself for shots and pills and hormones. But I was shocked at his actual prescription: Weight gain. At 5 feet tall and just 92 pounds, I knew I was underweight. But not a single previous doctor had mentioned that my weight could possibly be a factor in my infertility. They tested me for everything else and even suggested I might be in premature menopause. Yet this doctor was adamant that the issue wasn't my hormones or ovaries-if I gained 10 to 15 pounds I'd most likely regain my fertility, no meds necessary. He diagnosed me with hypothalamic amenorrhea (lack of period). Because of my low weight, my body didn't feel like it could support a baby, and the only way to convince it otherwise was to pack on the pounds. I'll admit it, at the time the thought of purposely gaining weight was terrifying to me. The truth is, I've always worried about my weight. When I was in high school, a coworker at my part-time job told me, "You'll never get a boyfriend with that extra weight." I wasn't big, yet that one mean comment set off an avalanche of anxiety about my size. I adopted a routine of working out a lot while heavily restricting my calories. As I dropped pounds, I got lots of compliments, so I kept up my obsessive routine. Eventually, by my mid 20s, I had a full-blown eating disorder. One side effect of my exercise bulimia and anorexia was that my menstrual cycle completely stopped. At the time I didn't really miss it. But now that I desperately wanted a baby, I realized how important it was. (Here's more on what if feels like to have exercise bulimia.) I took my doctor's advice and went on a weight-gain fest, gaining 13 pounds in a short amount of time. All of a sudden my period came back and by my third cycle, I was pregnant. While I was uncomfortable with the weight gain, I recognized it was necessary for my baby to be healthy. But within months after he was born, I was back to my old routine of overexercising and undereating. Except this time I added something new-I was obsessively pumping breast milk, way more than my son needed, as a way to burn extra calories. (I donated the excess to a milk bank.) Even breastfeeding had turned into just another way to lose weight. And of course when my son weaned, my period never came back. Fourteen months later my husband and I decided we wanted to try for another baby. I knew what I had to do and went to work putting on weight again. But this time, it wasn't so easy. Even though I put the pounds back on and my period came back, I had three early miscarriages. Miscarriages are incredibly common and are rarely the mother's fault. I don't know why I miscarried, but a part of me worried that my weight fluctuations had something to do with it. Finally, I was able to get and stay pregnant and I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. As soon as I saw her, I knew this time things had to be different. I realized that I didn't want my little girl to follow my example when it came to extreme dieting and exercise. I wanted better for her. It was time to ditch my disordered behaviors for good and get truly healthy. I started by throwing out my scale. At first, it was hard to just let my body do its thing, but as my weight stabilized I began to feel an incredible peace about my body. I started to love my new curves and felt immense gratitude to my body for everything it had done and was doing for me and my kids. Whenever I looked in the mirror and was tempted to criticize my hanging skin or cellulite, I'd snuggle my sweet babies and realize that they wouldn't exist if it weren't for these changes. The part that scares me now is how many women fall into the same trap that I did: thinking that to be super fit you need to be super skinny. Others may be unknowingly hurting their fertility and their bodies. My years of disordered behavior didn't come without a price. In addition to losing my period, I also lost bone mass and put my heart under a lot of stress. I'm a young mom, but in addition to worrying about potty training and preschools, I also have to worry about "old" problems like osteoporosis and heart disease. And I wish more young women understood these risks. I won't say I'm perfect now. I definitely have my bad body image days. But I've learned a powerful lesson: In trying to look healthy, I wasn't being healthy. Now instead of seeing my weight gain as a problem, I see it as a metamorphosis. It is true I didn't "get my pre-pregnancy body back." But it turns out I don't even want it back. I love my body the way it is now. And if I ever doubt that, all I have to do is look into my daughter's innocent eyes and remember that we were all born beautiful-and we still are.